We are living in some of the most challenging times the church has faced in recent decades. If truth be told, many leaders find themselves at a loss in times of crisis. One thing is for sure; we live in a different world than we did a few months ago, and things probably will never go back to the way they were.
As we look at the history of the church, we see that the church has survived more difficult situations than we are currently facing. Whether in persecution or pandemics, the church has not only survived but thrived in difficult and challenging times.
Having previously discussed several leadership essentials, I would like to say more about contemplative leadership in particular. During these radical changes and challenges, we need contemplative leaders who are willing to reimagine and embrace the future possibilities of the church from a place of prayer.
As I noted in my previous piece on leadership essentials, leaders are too often people of action, but rarely men and women of contemplation and prayer. The result is often stress, depression, and burn out. In a world filled with distractions, we need a quiet place where God can speak to us. Many people spend only a few minutes each day reading and meditating on the Bible, and often this is not enough. Sitting and prayerfully meditating on God’s Word put the cares of this world in proper perspective and opens us up to allowing God to speak to us. In In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen says, “If there is any focus that the Christian leader of the future will need, it is the discipline of dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps saying, “Do you love me?”… This is the discipline of contemplative prayer” (p. 42).
Contemplative prayer is important for leaders because even doing a good work for the Lord can be a distraction if we do not allow time to rest. After the disciples returned from a busy missionary journey, Jesus told them to, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31). They had been busy, and Jesus knew that they needed rest for their weary souls. Spiritual burnout occurs when we do not give ourselves time to rest from our daily routine.
We also see this illustrated in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and heard His word, but Martha was distracted with much serving. Jesus said that Mary had chosen the best thing because she sat at His feet and was not distracted with much serving. Resting in the Lord is the only way that we can continue to have an effective Christian life because our being must come before our doing.
Contemplative leadership also involves deep listening that is sometimes referred to as double listening, which involves listening to God and listening to culture. God often speaks through events and circumstances, and we need to have the space to reflect on what is being said. For instance, what is God saying to the church about racism? What is God saying to the church about the pandemic? How are we to respond to these real issues out of love and compassion, rather than out of a place of outrage and division. These are the questions of our age. According to John Stott,
Double listening is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission (p. 29).
Double listening will help us know how to respond in a prophetic and redemptive way, rather than just reacting to circumstances or going along with the world. Contemplative action that will help leaders of the future respond to the burning needs of the day out of a place of prayer rather than anxiety.
Contemplative prayer must always lead to contemplative action. One of the greatest modern examples of contemplative leadership is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the age of thirty-five, King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the American Civil Rights movement. His prophetic words inspired a generation, which resulted in legal and social change that empowered black Americans who had been disenfranchised and persecuted for centuries.
One evening when he was ready to give up, he had a deep encounter with God that changed his life, giving him the strength and courage to continue on with his fight for justice and equality. As he recounts in a sermon entitled “Our God is Able,”
I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I took my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears passed from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm (Strength to Love [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963], p. 114).
In closing, contemplative leadership is rooted in prayer, listening, and flows into mission. All around the world, many Christians are running on empty and on the verge of burnout. One of the reasons is that many of us are trying to serve God in our own power and strength without being with God. Mission without prayer and worship is dangerous and disembodied. Often times we falsely divorce missional practices from spiritual practices, as if mission was something that is non-spiritual and merely pragmatic and dependent upon us, not God. A powerful analogy for contemplative leadership is breathing. Just as breathing is essential to the physical body, so the Christian life involves a spiritual breathing. Pope Francis reminds us,
“Breathing is made up of two stages: inhaling, the intake of air, and exhaling, the letting out of air. The spiritual life is fed, nourished, by prayer and is expressed outwardly through mission: inhaling and exhaling. When we inhale, by prayer, we receive the fresh air of the Holy Spirit. When exhaling this air, we announced Jesus Christ risen by the same Spirit. No one can live without breathing. It is the same for the Christian: without praise and mission there is not Christian life” (“Address to Catholic Fraternity of the Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowship,” Oct. 31, 2014.).
Breathing is a beautiful analogy of the Christian life that reminds us that our mission is directly connected to our spirituality. Contemplative leadership reminds us that our mission isn’t just doing something for God, but begins and ends with being with God.